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Posted at 5:28 PM ET, 01/31/2011

Letter to President Obama: Who is a 'highly qualified' teacher?

By Valerie Strauss

This letter was just sent to President Obama by more than 50 organizations -- including education, civil rights, disability, student, parent, and community groups -- about legislation in Congress that would allow teachers still in training to be considered “highly qualified” so they can meet a standard set in the federal No Child Left Behind law.

Dear Mr. President:
As organizations concerned with promoting educational quality and equity, particularly for students who have traditionally been least well served by our educational system, we are deeply committed to the development of well-prepared, experienced, and effective teachers for all communities, and to ensuring that every student has a fully prepared and effective teacher.

On behalf of the nation’s 50 million elementary and secondary students, we write to you with a sense of urgency about a critical issue that threatens the welfare of many of them.

We are deeply concerned about a provision inserted in H.R. 3082, the Continuing Resolution for government funding passed in December, which undermined the federal definition of a “highly qualified teacher” in the No Child Left Behind Act by allowing states to label teachers as “highly qualified” when they are still in training – and, in many cases, just beginning training – in alternative route programs.

This provision – inserted in the law without notice to concerned public stakeholders and without public debate – codifies a Bush-era regulation that was challenged by parents of low-income students of color in court because their children were disproportionately taught by such under-prepared teachers and because the regulation removed the obligation of states and districts to disclose and rectify the inequity.

The provision seeks to reverse the recent federal appeals court ruling these parents obtained, which held that the regulation patently violated NCLB’s unambiguous requirement that only fully prepared teachers be deemed “highly qualified” and that, as such, teachers still in-training must be publicly disclosed and not concentrated in low-income, high-minority schools.

Our concern with this provision (and with any federal policy that reinforces the unequal allocation of fully trained and certified teachers to all students) is that it disproportionately impacts our most vulnerable populations: low-income students and students of color, English language learners, and students with disabilities who are most often assigned such underprepared teachers.

Further, this provision hides this disparate reality from parents and the public by disingenuously labeling teachers-in-training as “highly qualified” and hindering advocacy for better prepared teachers.

Research confirms what logic and experience dictate: that teachers-in training are significantly less effective in supporting student achievement than those who are fully trained when they enter teaching, and that the negative effects are particularly pronounced for students whose success depends most acutely on fully-trained professionals.

We believe that students with the greatest needs should have the best-prepared and most effective teachers to support their success, and that pursuit of that goal should be the purpose of federal policy.

In the coming weeks, we will propose specific actions to the Administration and the Congress that can achieve this goal, including repeal of this provision and development of a transparent definition of teacher quality, along with a set of policies that will allow the nation to put a well-prepared and effective teacher in every classroom. We will work tirelessly and in concert to see that policy is enacted that will support high-quality teaching for every child.

Action United
Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment
Alliance for Multilingual Multicultural Education
American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education
American Association of State Colleges and Universities
American Federation of Teachers
ASPIRA Association
Association of University Centers on Disabilities
Autistic Self Advocacy Network
Bay Area Parent Leadership Action Network
California Association for Bilingual Education
California Latino School Boards Association
Californians for Justice
Californians Together
Campaign for Fiscal Equity
Campaign for Quality Education
Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning
Center for Teaching Quality
Citizens for Effective Schools
Coalition for Educational Justice
Council for Exceptional Children
Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates
Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund
Easter Seals
ELC, Education Law Center
FairTest, The National Center for Fair & Open Testing
Higher Education Consortium for Special Education
Justice Matters
Latino Elected and Appointed Officials National Taskforce on Education
Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law
Learning Disabilities Association of America
Los Angeles Educational Partnership
Movement Strategy Center
National Alliance of Black School Educators
National Center for Learning Disabilities
National Council for Educating Black Children
National Council of Teachers of English
National Disability Rights Network
National Down Syndrome Congress
National Down Syndrome Society
National Education Association
National Latino/a Education Research and Policy Project
National League of United Latin American Citizens
Parents for Unity
Philadelphia Education Fund
Public Advocates Inc.
Public Education Network
Rural School and Community Trust
RYSE Center
School Social Work Association of America
Teacher Education Division of the Council for Exceptional Children
Texas Association for Chicanos and Higher Education
United Church of Christ Justice & Witness Ministries
Youth Together

cc: Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education, U.S. Department of Education

By Valerie Strauss  | January 31, 2011; 5:28 PM ET
Categories:  Teachers  | Tags:  continuing resolution, definition of highly qualified, education groups, h.r. 3082, highly qualified, highly qualified teacher, letter to obama, president obama, public school teachers  
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Next: 'It makes no sense:' A dissection of Obama's education view


Atlas! There is a valid definition of what is deemed to be a highly-qualified teacher. There has been a misconception of what a highly-qualified teacher is for too long!Please be advised also,if a teacher has a valid teaching cetificate they are highly qualified teachers. It is a myth that the only way you can be highly - qualified is by taking the PRAXIS! While taking the PRAXIS is mandatory to getting your deree,in some instances,you still must get a valid certificate to become a highly qualified teacher. (Deborah A. Hairston)"A HIGHLY-QUALIFIED TEACHER IN WASHINGTON, DC"

Posted by: dah450 | January 31, 2011 8:24 PM | Report abuse

This provision is a direct result of the marriage between big money, i.e., Gates Foundation, Broad folks, Walton Family, etc. and TFA who supplies urban and poor districts with inexperienced teachers. They must have a powerful lobby on Capitol Hill.

I love the letter and I totally agree with it but unfortunately nothing will change.

Posted by: UrbanDweller | January 31, 2011 9:21 PM | Report abuse

I know a number of highly qualified teachers. I wish I would have actually had a few of these teachers myself. Some of this issue is many teachers in training have no classroom experience or child contact until after their college degree is completed. Most teachers are not masters of their subject matter, particularly in high school. In my experience, California colleges and universities produce most of the less than stellar teachers. We need teacher colleges, such as Rhode Island College, which produced one of the outstanding teachers I know.

Posted by: kodonivan | January 31, 2011 9:29 PM | Report abuse

As the letter states, HR 3082 did specifically weaken this provision of NCLB. To quote NCLB: "The term 'highly qualified'-when used with respect to any public elementary school or secondary school teacher teaching in a State, means that- ....... (ii) the teacher has not had certification or licensure requirements waived on an emergency, temporary, or provisional basis." (Title IX, Section 9101).

The problem is that there are not enough "highly qualified teachers" out there, especially in the areas of special education, math, and the sciences. I teach in an affluent, suburban district. Yet the district spends a signigicant amount of funds annually recruiting "highly qualified teachers," and a teacher must be highly qualified teach in my district. If we have trouble recruiting teachers, imagine the difficulty an under-funded, urban district faces.

So it comes down to this: Do you want someone in the classroom or not? Do you want to push class size up to an untenable level? Which would you prefer to see: a classroom of 50 students taught by one qualified teacher, or two classrooms of 25 students taught by two teachers in preparation.

I don't think that the change that the letter is protesting is a good one, but I believe that it is a pragmatic one. Hiring good candidates who are willing to teach in difficult situations is an investment in the future.

The bottom line is that you get what you pay for. If you want an abundance of highly qualified teachers, you have to pay them a salary commensurate with their expertise and education. Everyone wants better schools and better education; but in the current economic climate, what was one the first things that was cut by many districts? Education. Teachers' salaries (I personally have not gotten a step increase in four years.) Teachers' jobs.

Posted by: timothygevans | January 31, 2011 11:42 PM | Report abuse

No, just stop calling them highly qualified until they are. Be honest they are teachers in training, when they have their degree or whatever the state requires then call them highly qualified, just be honest with the public.

Posted by: mia_101mail | February 1, 2011 12:14 AM | Report abuse

The shortage of math teachers notwithstanding, I believe it is inappropriate to label any intern, student teacher, or other person who does not have a valid teaching credential as "highly qualified" per NCLB. It is misleading and will distort the system. I say this as a student teacher myself, one transitioning from high tech.

Read more @

Posted by: dreid64 | February 1, 2011 1:40 AM | Report abuse

As a teacher and principal with over 32 years of experience, I can tell you that teachers do not become great teachers "in the womb." Their journey to greatest only BEGINS during student teaching. Like most professions, teachers get better as they teach and learn from other highly effective teachers. This is not to say that a teacher cannot be deemed highly effective before gaining tenure (2-3 years). I wish Congress would stop messing with this level of detail and leave that to local entities.

Posted by: Woodie731 | February 1, 2011 5:40 AM | Report abuse

As a teacher and principal with over 32 years of experience, I can tell you that teachers do not become great teachers "in the womb." Their journey to greatest only BEGINS during student teaching. Like most professions, teachers get better as they teach and learn from other highly effective teachers. This is not to say that a teacher cannot be deemed highly effective before gaining tenure (2-3 years). I wish Congress would stop messing with this level of detail and leave that to local entities.

Posted by: Woodie731 | February 1, 2011 5:41 AM | Report abuse

Highly qualified should be teachers with proven success with all students regardless of family background, socio-economic status, race, ethnicity, or language status. Too many teachers are only successful with a limited number of students from similar backgrounds... these teachers should never be considered highly qualified no matter how many years of experience they have. Highly qualified should be based on proven results... if you have an achievement gap you are in no way highly qualified.

Posted by: 12345leavemealone | February 1, 2011 5:42 AM | Report abuse

12345leavmealone - I disagree - teachers are not cookie-cutter any more than Doctors, lawyers, journalists, plumbers or musicians are. Everyone has their niche, their area of expertise and a situation or situations where they can be most effective, successful and happy.

An excellent 1st grade teacher may be mediocre in middle school and vice versa.

A gifted teacher of low SES kids may not shine in a high-income suburban school.

Teachers are individuals like anyone else. Please try to remember that.

Posted by: efavorite | February 1, 2011 7:43 AM | Report abuse

Obviously Congress doesn't agree with the education professions' definition of what a "highly qualified" teacher is.

Tough. They write the checks.

Posted by: corco02az | February 1, 2011 7:49 AM | Report abuse

I try to imagine Obama and Duncan looking over this list and brushing the signers off as status-quo seekers who don’t care about kids.

Given their actions so far, I’m afraid it’s possible, though I like to think of Obama, at least, as being a reasonable, thoughtful person.

Posted by: efavorite | February 1, 2011 7:52 AM | Report abuse

I try to imagine Obama and Duncan looking over this list and brushing the signers off as status-quo seekers who don’t care about kids.

Given their actions so far, I’m afraid it’s possible, though I like to think of Obama, at least, as being a reasonable, thoughtful person.

Posted by: efavorite | February 1, 2011 7:54 AM | Report abuse

"A highly qualified teacher" is such a juvenile phrase. In fact, there is no process that can actually be used to assess it. There is one thing certain though. We will spend much more time and effort discussing the term, than doing something educationally responsible.

By the way. When I wake up in the morning I pray for the highly qualified police officer if I should need one; the highly qualified grocery checker, the highly qualified doctor, the highly qualified brake technician, the highly qualified pilot, the highly qualified student, the highly qualified principal, and the highly qualified politician grace my day. In fact, I pray that a highly qualified god answers my prayers.

Posted by: jdman2 | February 1, 2011 8:01 AM | Report abuse

Who indeed is "highly qualified"? A degree in a topic does not make a highly qualified teacher. I would rather learn technical writing from an engineer than from an education major, but you would tell me that the engineer isn't qualified to teach writing.

Posted by: HawkEyedDove | February 1, 2011 10:45 AM | Report abuse

This is all about politicians and the billioniare boys clubs trying to undermine public school teachers by invalidating their credentials. Somehow, just because you are rich or were appointed to a political office after kissing some rear-ends, one is entitled to define educational policy. They believe anybody can teach, no experience required. Teachers are an easy target and a quick way to score political points. These people seek nothing less than the dismantling of public education in America.

Posted by: kschur1 | February 1, 2011 11:06 AM | Report abuse

Repeat after me: Relabeling teachers in training as highly qualified under NCLB equals a cheaper work force.

Posted by: PGutierrez1 | February 1, 2011 11:20 AM | Report abuse

Based on results, “highly qualified” teachers are few and far between.

From It’s Official: College Students Learn Next To Nothing…

“After two years of college, 45 percent of students learned little to nothing. After four years, 36 percent of students learned almost nothing.”

At the risk of sounding a bit like Slick Willie, “education” really isn’t about education anymore. It’s about indoctrinating participants into a failed Marxist ideology; channeling money to Marxist Democrat-supporting teachers’ unions; making sure that young families start off with tens of thousands of dollars of student debt; reallocating parents’ resources so that they never achieve financial independence; and, in general, continuing to grow the size, influence and raw power of government.

We spend a fortune for so-called education in this country. What we really get are Marxist indoctrination centers or, if you want to give them the benefit of the doubt, a very expensive baby-sitting service complete with pensions, tenure, months-long paid vacations and Cadillac healthcare benefits. It makes no economic sense whatsoever. Not only that, the product we get is downright lousy and we have the studies to prove it.

The status quo is not working. America is falling further and further behind each year in terms of providing the type of education necessary to stay competitive in a global economy. In a very real sense – and without the slightest exaggeration – our public school teachers and administrators together with our community college and university professors are running America into the ground.

Junior high schools, high schools, community colleges, state as well as private universities in fact all forms of classroom education are now completely obsolete. Further, the day-to-day experience of most students is more akin to doing time in prison than improving oneself through the progressive assimilation of knowledge. All classroom education – both public and private – is all a colossal waste of time, energy, money and human potential.

The good news is we don’t have to put up with it and the solution is actually far less expensive than continuing to subsidize the problem.

"Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn." - Benjamin Franklin

Posted by: LePauvrePapillon | February 1, 2011 12:37 PM | Report abuse

We now have the technology not only to put all human knowledge online but to do so in a format which is interactive, dramatic and entertaining. Whichever nation recognizes this quite obvious fact and moves on it first will have an incredible, perhaps even insurmountable, advantage over all others.

You want to balance these budgets both state and federal? You want a highly educated work force? You want to relieve parents of the burden of paying for college degrees? You want to relieve young families of the burden of tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt?

Then fire the professors. Disband the teachers’ unions. Retire the million-a-year administrators. Close the gated compounds. Put every course, every major, every bachelor, every masters, every doctorate online for free and let every U.S. citizen learn as much and excel as far and as fast as he or she can.

For a fraction of what we now spend on an ineffective, bloated bureaucracy masquerading as an education system, every U.S. citizen could learn anything they want, at their own pace, without having to drive or live miles away from their home, without going into debt and without suffering through boring lectures that are more of a boost for the professors’ (or graduate assistants’) egos than a learning experience for the student.

The annual budget for the U.S. Department of Education is over $80 billion. For one percent of that ($800 million) we could allocate $1 million per course to create 800 online courses per year. With that kind of budget, we could quickly produce courses that are thorough, concise, interactive, dramatic and entertaining.

The average bachelor degree consists of only about 40 courses. Within a very few years, we could have every field from bachelor to masters to doctorate available online for all U.S. citizens -- for free -- with those completing the programs receiving an accredited degree from the United States Academy of Arts and Sciences.
We have the technology, the talent and the dollars available to do this - and do it excellently - right now.

Posted by: LePauvrePapillon | February 1, 2011 12:38 PM | Report abuse

Just imagine the economics of having all post-elementary school education available online and for free. The tax burden imposed by state and local governments could be cut nearly in half. Instead of supporting an ever-increasing uberclass of government employees, vouchers could be issued for students in grades one through six and the free market could – and would – provide parents with far better options at a fraction of the cost taxpayers now have to bear. Lower taxes means more money available for private investment and that means more jobs and opportunities for everyone.

And with every class, every major, every bachelors, every masters, every doctorate available online, for free, not only would there be true equal opportunity for all, there would be no more excuses for not at least making yourself a productive, responsible, self-supporting citizen – all without incurring tens of thousands of dollars of student loan debt.

So called “progressives” like to envision themselves as forward looking, egalitarian and pro-education. They are none of these things. They are the most reactionary and conservative defenders of the status quo on the planet whenever their entrenched interests are threatened. The only change they are interested in is the change that they want others to make and/or pay for.

It’s time for progressives to either abandon the 18th Century model of education or admit that they are just post-Modern Tories with a royal sense of entitlement.

Posted by: LePauvrePapillon | February 1, 2011 12:39 PM | Report abuse

There has been an organized attack to the charter schools that are being managed by Concept Schools located in Chicago. Concept Schools, for almost ten years, have been serving for the people of Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, and Missouri in providing a decent education to the American kids. A group of people, on the other hand, began attacking to these schools by making up a fiction narrative that Concept managed schools, e.g. Horizon Science Academy, Noble Academy, Math and Science Academies, are linked to Fetfullah Gulen, a Turkish schoolar who lives in Pensylvennia, and the Gulen Movement named after him. Gulen is known in his home country Turkey as an advocate of dialogue among the three Abrahamic religions and supporter of education for all kids. Although, there is no organic link between the Concept namaged charter schools and Gulen, the opponents of Gulen and the Gulen Movement, among them some ex teachers of Concept Schools, are labelling these charter schools as Gulen charter schools. In this case, some parents of Concept managed Horizon Science Academies opened a blog to answer false accusations and provide accurate information about the facts that are brought into the discussion.

Posted by: leslieprada | February 1, 2011 1:27 PM | Report abuse

While they’re still in training, intern teachers are not yet highly qualified

By Beverly Young
The recent posting “Alternate Route, Same Destination” by Catherine Kearney presents one perspective on the recent congressional action to reestablish California’s teachers who are still in training through an alternative program of preparation as “highly qualified.” This distinction is not merely one of words; the congressional action allows the continuance of California’s strange definition of these teachers: They are considered to be “highly qualified” in their profession before they are actually “fully qualified” and have completed initial preparation for their profession. Although I have worked with Ms. Kearney and truly respect her dedication to her work, I would like to point out several disagreements with her perspective as well as some factual errors regarding these programs and the congressional action.

Ms. Kearney characterizes the recent action as necessary to save this “critical pathway” (alternative programs) from being cut off. I do not believe that is what this issue is about. If interns were not considered to be highly qualified, that would not mean the programs would cease to exist. As long as teacher shortages exist, internships will continue to be an important route to the teaching profession.

The article says that Public Advocates and others define “highly qualified” as including “only those who pursued their credential through traditional programs.” This is not actually true. Public Advocates and others are perfectly willing to accept graduates or those who complete alternative programs into the ranks of those considered to be highly qualified, the same as those who complete traditional programs. The difference is that candidates still in the process of completing a program, whether traditional or alternative, are not yet highly qualified. It has nothing to do with the route, but rather the completion of preparation.

The article says that traditional programs differ from alternative programs because alternative is quicker, has concurrent coursework, and includes “intensive coaching and support.” This coaching and support is most often the critical difference between program routes, but in the opposite way. In a traditional program, in addition to a “day-to-day mentor,” the teacher candidate is placed in the classroom of a fully trained and experienced teacher. These candidates experience much more and much deeper coaching and support, by watching and being watched for every teaching experience, not just having a classroom visit on occasion.

All of the qualities that are listed for teachers in alternative route programs are also true of teachers in traditional route programs, including the same requirements for demonstrating subject matter competence — not “all” by exam though, as was stated.

more. . .

Posted by: byoung4 | February 1, 2011 4:47 PM | Report abuse

"Like most professions, teachers get better as they teach.. ." But can we expect politicians to recognize this fact when so many of them got elected to political office by telling the voters they were "not politicians"? If the voters think political experience is not necessary to make the laws about education, why should those making the laws think teaching experience is important to teach?

Posted by: sideswiththekids | February 1, 2011 5:50 PM | Report abuse

Lets look at the real problem. Instead of arguing semantics about what "highly qualified" means, lets look at the fact that the majority of teachers that come out of teacher prep programs as "high qualified" have no idea of how to teach. I personally was enrolled at the University of Maryland, I ended up with a dual bachelors, one in history, the other in secondary education - social studies. According to the state of Maryland and NCLB I am a highly qualified teacher.

Now lets look at what my degree gave me. I spent 3 years in general ed and history classes. I spent 1/2 a semester where I observed a middle school classroom 1 day a week. I spent 1/2 a semester where I observed a high school classroom 1 day a week. And I spent 4/5 of a semester teaching 4 periods a day in a high school.

For me to claim I was "highly qualified" when I walked into my own classroom on day 1 after graduation is a complete joke. Whether or not a person has a bachelors, masters, certificate, or any other piece of paper it means absolutely nothing. All that "highly qualified" means is that you met the criteria set by a politician that has no idea of how to be a teacher.

If you want to let people in teacher prep programs teach, that is fine by me. As long as they have what it takes. And having what it takes is not measured by a piece of paper, it is measured by time in the classroom. No starts off being a rockstar, you get there after years of practice. Its a process of trial and error. You fine tune the skill year after year.

So please get off this "highly qualified" debate. I do not care what college you got your bachelors or masters from, the first day that you walk into your own classroom as an employee, you are NOT highly qualified.

Posted by: rubinstt1 | February 1, 2011 6:13 PM | Report abuse

At last. In no other profession are people allowed to walk in with no experience and no training and do the job of professionals. Education is not a Business. It is a profession. You are dealing with children. Yes a degree in education is necessary. With that degree there is training, observations of the teacher, learning about the psychology,sociology, and physiology of children who have developing minds. People who are not allowed to get that training in advance is doing a great service to our children. They are allowed to do it because poor children and their parents do not fight back. Thank God somebody has finally stepped forward on their behalf.

Posted by: cutie7 | February 1, 2011 8:21 PM | Report abuse

I meant they are doing a great disservice.
People who are not allowed to get that training in advance are doing a great disservice to our children.

Posted by: cutie7 | February 1, 2011 8:29 PM | Report abuse

Maybe NOT for kindergarten and the first few grades ...but for Jr. and Sr. Hi a teacher's degree SHOULD be in the area that they will teach, Math, Geology (earth science), English, Chemistry, Physics, Biology, Political Science, Latin, Spanish, etc. INSTEAD OF "teaching the whole child" goggledygook pseudo educational crap that is a MAJOR part of the syllabus in most education degree programs!.

Posted by: lufrank1 | February 1, 2011 10:19 PM | Report abuse

I tried really hard to be a good teacher at the beginning of my career. I look back and feel for some of my students when I was young. I'm still trying to be a good teacher, and the same challenges and new ones still come up. It was never a question of the material -- it was how to reach students. I had a lot of help from seasoned teachers.

I wish that people would realize that some teachers are being fired close to retirement to save money. I have very mixed feelings about replacing those teachers with grads going into Teach for America for a 3-yr stint.

Posted by: cococo | February 1, 2011 11:21 PM | Report abuse

Right on, lufrank1! In Ohio a few years ago, a survey found that ONE THIRD of the high school teachers were teaching "out of field" and some had never taken a college course in the field they were teaching.

When I was an undergraduate, student teaching was one of the last things an education student did; I once over heard two classmates lamenting that they had discovered they really didn't like teaching as much as they thought they would, but they couldn't afford to start over and most of their education credits wouldn't transfer to any other program in the university. By contrast, when a friend decided she couldn't afford to go on for an advanced degree in biology, she easily transferred to a medical technology field with only a few other courses needed.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | February 2, 2011 9:45 AM | Report abuse

What I don't understand is why one is deemed 'highly qualified' without any teaching experience or an advanced degree. Why are teachers with advanced degrees and classroom experience being labeled under-qualified? Can't there be an alternative to the state teaching certificate? I have an MA in English as well as an MEd and have a high score on both the Praxis I and II, 5 years experience teaching high school and 1 year teaching college and I can't get a job at a public school in Hawaii. This needs to change!

Posted by: sanger1 | February 3, 2011 9:41 PM | Report abuse

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